What color is a mirror anyway?
What color is a mirror?
A question that most people don’t really think to ask, but are very fascinated with nonetheless: what color is a mirror?
When you ask yourself “what is the color of a mirror?” the first thing you might think is that it’s silver. This is, after all, how we saw mirrors depicted in the cartoons of our childhood.
This, however, is incorrect.
A mirror often appears silver to the human eye because the reflective layer contains metal. However, a mirror is not silver or gray. Not at all.
How we see color
This is where things get super fascinating. Humans perceive color through the electromagnetic spectrum, which is a range of wavelengths visible and invisible to the human eye.
The visible part of the spectrum covers wavelengths from about 400 nm to 700 nm. For this reason, colors like indigo, blue, green, orange, yellow, and red fit the spectrum in ascending order of wavelength.
When light comes in contact with an object, the object absorbs specific wavelengths of a visible spectrum. The wavelengths of the visible spectrum which are not absorbed are reflected. The reflected wavelengths that make their way to your eyes can be perceived as any number of colors.
Objects that absorb all visible wavelengths are seen as black, however, which reflect visible wavelengths are considered white.
Are the mirrors silver or clear?
Now that we know a mirror isn’t silver…is that clear?
The truth is that a typical mirror actually tends to be more of a green tint than any other color. They only appear silver because they contain a highly reflective metal, which gives them a silvery or “clear” appearance.
A mirror will generally reflect more for the green wavelength of color than red or blue light. How light interacts with the atomic structure of the mirror is crucial to this equation. In fact, it greatly impacts the images we see when looking in the mirror.
How Reflections Work
Mirrors, similar to things that appear white to our eyes, reflect all visible wavelengths.
In this case, there are different ways of reflecting the light. Mirrors have what is called “specular reflection”. This means that the wavelengths leaving the surface of a mirror are organized according to the angle and configuration of the mirror itself.
In other words, a mirror constructs an image of the source of light.
Most mirrors are composed of a soda-lime silica glass substrate with a silver backing, as we have seen. The substrate support is the optical core of most common mirrors and what gives it the reflective quality.
Check out this super nerdy and fascinating post on how mirrors work!
Mirrors of the second surface against the first surface
There are two main types of mirrors: second surface mirrors and first surface mirrors.
A second surface mirror has a layer of glass in front of the silver backing reflective portion. The silver part does not mean that the metal used is real silver. Other metals, for example aluminum, zinc, gold or copper, can be used. The second surface mirror is designed for use in homes.
A first-surface mirror has its reflective layer on the front of the mirror instead of the back. This makes it about 10% more reflective than a second surface mirror. First surface mirrors are manufactured for optical equipment such as cameras, microscopes and telescopes. They are designed for minimal image distortion and more scientific applications.
How an imperfect mirror affects what you see
If there are glitches, bumps or general imperfections in a mirror, this will naturally distort the image you see.
You may have noticed this when trying on clothes in a store. Some mirrors make you look a bit like a model, while others make you look like a walrus.
Mirrors can be distorted in a way that intentionally manipulates their reflections (e.g. a bathing suit dressing room wanting to sell you expensive bikinis) or sometimes, when mass-produced, they are simply naturally distorted by careless manufacturing .
Either way, imperfect mirrors will not only reflect the subject seen in them, but also the spectrum of light reflected in them.
Ok, simply put, what color are the mirrors?
Simply put, a mirror is the color it reflects at any given time. However, real mirrors are not perfect. Their surface atoms give any reflection a very slight green tint because the atoms in the glass reflect whatever is in front of it.
Thus, more than white or silver, a mirror reflects green light more than any other color.
Simply put, if you have to define the color of a mirror, it’s actually green.